LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom recorded its highest daily death toll on Friday since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as London declared a major incident, warning that its hospitals were at risk of being overwhelmed.
With a highly transmissable new variant of the virus surging across Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has shuttered the economy and is rushing out vaccines faster than the country’s European neighbours in a bid to stem the pandemic.
Britain has the world’s fifth-highest official death toll from COVID-19 at nearly 80,000, and the 1,325 deaths reported within 28 days of a positive test on Friday surpassed the previous daily record from last April.
“Our hospitals are under more pressure than at any other time since the start of the pandemic, and infection rates across the entire country continue to soar at an alarming rate,” Johnson said in a statement.
“The NHS (National Health Service) is under severe strain and we must take action to protect it, both so our doctors and nurses can continue to save lives and so they can vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as we can.”
A further 68,053 COVID-19 cases were reported – also a new daily high – meaning almost three million people have now tested positive for the disease in the United Kingdom, which has a total population of around 67 million.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, from the opposition Labour Party, said hospital beds in the capital would run out within the next few weeks because the spread of the virus was “out of control”.
“We are declaring a major incident because the threat this virus poses to our city is at crisis point,” Khan said.
The designation of “major incident” is usually reserved for attacks or grave accidents, notably those likely to involve “serious harm, damage, disruption or risk to human life or welfare, essential services, the environment or national security”.
London’s last “major incident” was the Grenfell Tower fire in a high-rise residential block in 2017, when 72 people died.
Khan said there were parts of London where 1 in 20 people had the virus. The pressure on the ambulance service, which was now dealing with up to 9,000 emergency calls a day, meant firefighters were being drafted in to drive vehicles, and police officers would follow.
London, which vies with Paris for the status of Europe’s richest city, has a population of more than nine million.
The Office for National Statistics estimated that 1.1 million people in England had the coronavirus in the week to Jan. 2, the equivalent of one person in 50.
Britain, the first country to approve vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca, on Friday approved Moderna’s shot, which it hopes to begin administering this spring. It also agreed to purchase an additional 10 million Moderna doses.
However, transport minister Grant Shapps said there were fears that some vaccines might not work properly against a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in South Africa.
“This is a very big concern for the scientists,” he told LBC radio.
A laboratory study by the U.S. drugmaker Pfizer, not yet peer-reviewed, indicated that the vaccine it is making, developed by Germany’s BioNTech, does work against one key mutation in the new variants found in Britain and South Africa.
(Reporting by Michael Holden, Alistair Smout, Andy Bruce and Kate Holton; writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Gareth Jones)